Sunday, May 22nd 2016
A sight of this handome Grade II listed red-brick and stucco railway station, designed by John Wilson and built in 1886, leaves no doubt that we are in Norwich, the county town of Norfolk.
The first syllable of both names shows that in Anglo-Saxon times they were thought of as being in the north – which may seem strange to us now who consider them to be situated in the east of England (see map). Be that as it may, the county was named as being the realm of the ‘northern folk’, presumably in relation to Anglo-Saxon kingdoms such as Sussex and Kent that were further south.
The name of the city of Norwich (now pronounced ‘norritch’) is not so easily explained. It is thought to derive from the situation of the Anglo-Saxon settlement on the northern side of the River Wensum, possibly to differentiate it from one or more settlements on the south side of the river. The second syllable comes from wic, a word meaning a ‘habitation’ or ‘dwelling place’ and commonly joined as a suffix to other words to form the name of a town.
The name of the river, by the way, means ‘wandering’ or ‘meandering’ and a glimpse at its course on the map shows how appropriate that name is.
From the station we wandered south-west to what is known as the Riverside, a street packed with restaurants, cafes and bars. For old time’s sake we popped into Frankie & Benny’s for coffee, having eaten there on previous visits. From there, we continued down Riverside which crosses the Wensum by a footbridge from which I took the above photo.
History has left many traces – not all of them peaceful – on Norwich, making it a fascinating town to explore for anyone interested in history and architecture. One such trace is this rather imposing building that rejoices in not one but two colourful names, the Dragon Hall and the Old Barge.
It was built around the 1420s or 1430s by merchant Robert Toppes as a merchant hall and its present name comes from a dragon carved into the woodwork of the Great Hall. It seems at some point to have acquired the name Meddyz Inn from the the owner, Roger Midday, said to be a bailiff of Norwich. By the middle of the 18th century, it accommodated a pub, though I am not sure whether this occupied the entire building or just a part of it. Later the pub became known as The Old Barge and this closed in 1969. I think that for a while it was a museum but it has now been refurbished and has found new purpose as the Writers’ Centre Norwich. It is now Grade I listed.
Riverside and the bridge had led us to King Street where we found the Dragon Hall. We continued along this lengthy street and it eventually led us to the Cathedral precinct, called Cathedral Close. There are several gated entrances to this, none more interesting, historically and architecturally speaking, than the Ethelbert Gate shown above. It consists of a gate (as you can see) and above it premises that were once a chapel dedicated to St Ethelbert but now assigned to other uses.
The gate’s beautiful and calm appearance belies the violent events which brought it into being. In the 13th century, the cathedral was administered by the Priory of the Holy Trinity and, unhappily, tensions flared between the monks and the townsfolk. These came to a head in 1272 when the dispute erupted into violence and the monks, far from turning the other cheek, killed several townsmen. Not unnaturally, the townsfolk retaliated, burning the cathedral, destroying the Church of St Ethelbert and looting the priory. The monks hired help, some of whom were killed by the angry citizens. Eventually, King Henry III intervened and, despite the fact that it was the monks who had started the killing, came down on their side. The town was fined and a number of citizens, deemed to be ringleaders, were executed. The King further required that the town replace the burned church by building a gate with a chapel to St Ethelbert above it. This is the beautiful Grade I listed edifice that stands today in silent witness of those terrible events.
Walking across a grassy area inside the Close we gained our first glimpse of the Cathedral, though it, and particularly the tower, can be seen from many points in the city. The Cathedral is Norman in design and, indeed, in substance as much of its stone was shipped from Caen in Normandy. Building began in 1096 and was completed in 1145. The Cathedral is dedicated to the Holy and Undivided Trinity and is today a Grade I listed building. You will find a handy map of the Cathedral on the Planetware site.
We approached the Cathedral by aiming for the main entrance, as seemed reasonable. The great doorway stood open, apparently ready to welcome us.
However, it turned out that the main door was closed to visitors and we were directed to a side entrance. That did not prevent us taking a photo of the doorway or…
…getting a good view of the nave, which is not so easy to do from inside the Cathedral. The nave is unusually long and the ceiling with its ribbed structure is very impressive.
If you have sharp eyes, you might notice a dark object silhouetted against the lighter background. It is suspended from the ceiling, rotating with the air currents, and it puzzled me when I first saw it.
By artists Joy Whiddett and Maz Jackson with the cooperation of Notre Dame High School, the object is a Censing Angel woven from willow twigs. It was installed for Easter, reflecting a tradition in the Middle Ages for having an angel dispensing incense. The coloured items are letters spelling out words in reference to the role of angels as bringers of messages to humanity from God.
Not knowing very much about the structure of churches and cathedrals or the meanings of the various parts, I had assumed that the nave was the main public part of the building, even though it seemed a little understated compared with some of the highly decorated places of worship that I have seen. So I was greatly surprised to find that one could continue beyond the altar, through what is called the Crossing (which lies beneath the tower) into a further part. Passing through the choir, consisting of wooden stalls constructed in 1416-25, one arrives at the Presbytery, which is a whole church on its own, gorgeously decorated. It was first used for services in 1101 and here is sited the Bishop’s Throne. (The word cathedral in fact derives from the Latin word for a chair, cathedra, used in later times to denote the throne or dignity of authoritative figures such a popes, bishops and professors.)
Here I am looking back through the choir stalls to the great organ which helps form a sort of partition between the Presbytery and the cathedral nave.
Wandering here and there, I came upon this archway. It is called the Reliquary Arch because in times past, when this house of worship would have been affiliated with the Church of Rome, holy relics would have been displayed here. Where have they gone? Were they perhaps given Christian burial? I have no idea but they are no longer here and we have been spared their gruesome presence. Instead, the Reliquary Arch now houses the Cathedral Treasury. Of what does this consist? I have no idea about that, either, but glimpses through the glass suggest items of opulence and historical interest.
There are, I think, six side-chapels in the Cathedral, each dedicated to a different entity and decorated to a unique scheme. Right at the eastern end of the Cathedral (beyond the Presbytery) is the Chapel of St Saviour which also serves as the Chapel of the Royal Norfolk Regiment.
There are many more interesting, beautiful, curious and historically significant objects and features that could be pointed out but I will conclude this all-too-brief survey with a slide show of the Cathedral’s stained glass windows of which there are many. Not all are included, of course, but just a selection.
When we remember that the Cathedral was not only a house of worship but was also a priory, then we are not surprised to discover the Cloisters on the southern side. I assume that these would once have been shut off from the Cathedral, preventing lay people from accessing them. Today, however, you can enter them by passing through a doorway.
This shows just two of the four sides of the square comprising the Cloisters. Did meditating monks once stroll here or perhaps gather here for a breath of fresh air at times when they were allowed relaxation from their duties?
The Cloisters obviously have to be around something and what they are around in this case is a grassed area or lawn. I don’t know whether the monks did anything in particular here (presumably cricket had not yet been invented, nor football for that matter) but perhaps they could stroll or sit here in clement weather. Although you cannot see it, because it is only marked out on the ground, there is a maze or labyrinth in the centre. The monks were never able to play with it, however, because it was installed only in 2002 as yet another commemoration of the Golden Jubilee of Elizabeth II.
We left the Cathedral Close by another gate. This one is called the Erpingham Gate and it was erected in 1420 in honour of Sir Thomas Erpingham, famous as the commander of the English archers at the Battle of Agincourt. The slightly worn but still finely wrought gate is Grade I listed.
In the street opposite the gate, we spied this somewhat crooked house. It is obviously very old, though whether the warping is caused by ground subsidence or internal settling, I do not know.
We took a closer look, entering by the archway under the projecting upper floor. We found an extensive property, obviously once the house of a wealthy citizen. According to a plaque placed on the wall by the present owners, the Norfolk Archaeological Trust, it originally belonged to Augustine Steward (1491-1571), a mercer by trade, who served as Sheriff (1526), Mayor (1534, 1546, and 1556) and Burgess in Parliament (1547). You will find more about him here. The house is Grade II* listed.
We began working our way slowly back to the station, passing through some of the quieter back streets that are often picturesque and replete with fine old buildings and other historical traces.
One of these was an old church, now a museum. The date 1460, incised in a buttress is probably the date when it was built and though it has endured several phases of rebuilding, it is still mainly a 15th-century structure. No longer a church, it now serves as a museum. The name Hungate refers to a street name that no longer exists and is thought to indicate that hounds were once kept in kennels in the area.
This visit provided a brief dip into the treasures that Norwich has to offer and the curious explorer will find many more.